Microsoft Surface 2 Review: Less Confusing and More Viable
It used to be a cliché, and maybe still is, that Microsoft got things right with version 3 of any new release. Well, if that cliché does still apply, Microsoft has taken some positive steps with the new Surface 2 that should offer some hope that the next time around might indeed be the charm when it comes to its Tablet vision, specifically the RT version of that vision. When the first edition of the Surface RT rolled out last year I was very conflicted and confused, and ultimately decidedly down on the device and concept. The Surface RT was confusing in execution and vision and performed poorly. If this was to be the first big step in the next direction Microsoft was heading in, it got off on a very wrong foot. That’s not just me saying that. The market spoke volumes leading Microsoft to take a big $900 million write off on unsold Surface RT inventory. Surface RT’s failure most likely led to some farewells at the top of Microsoft’s chain of command. To be frank, if Microsoft would have abandoned the RT platform I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Now comes the Surface 2. Microsoft still has work to do on its RT based Tablets, but with the Surface 2 it is at least taking some positive steps. I could not recommend the original Surface RT to anyone, regardless of usage scenario. That’s different with the Surface 2. If the old cliché, “close but no cigar” applies here, I would think Microsoft can at least get the cigars ready, but I wouldn’t light them up just yet.
One of the many reasons the original Surface RT perplexed me was that it was excellent hardware with a very flawed user experience. The Surface 2 builds on that original hardware success. It is a teeny bit lighter (1.49 lbs vs. 1.50 lbs) and built durably enough that the device could take the pounding that most mobile warriors dish out. It is slightly smaller, (10.81 x 6.81 x 0.35 inches compared to the Surface’s 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37 inches). Microsoft has upped the screen resolution from 1366 × 768 to 1920 x 1080 and that does make a difference. The processor has been upgraded as well. Microsoft has also made advances in both the Touch and Type Covers that take an already attractive (and necessary in Microsoft’s vision) accessory and made them better. Microsoft has also improved the sound, which was nothing short of a major embarrassment with version 1.
I’ll talk about each of those improvements in turn, and I’ll also talk about some of the bigger issues I see with the Surface 2 both pro and con. This is going to be a three part review as follows:
- Surface 2 Hardware and Windows 8.1 Improvements
- The Software (Apps) Story and How that Hurts Surface 2
- The Vision Thing and Why It is Still Not Clear
Parts 2 and 3 will follow in the next few days. As context, I’m reviewing the Surface 2 with 32GB of memory, with a Type Cover. I do not use a mouse on this device, preferring to use the device as a touch Tablet with a keyboard.
So, let’s get to the hardware and how Microsoft has made some improvements for this device with Windows 8.1
As I mentioned I was impressed with the original Surface RT hardware and I am equally impressed with the Surface 2. I am not a fan of the “let’s use Tablets in landscape mode” thinking that seems to be behind the Surface Tablets (and others), as I prefer to do my reading in portrait mode. This is a matter of personal preference and that said, the Surface 2 feels good in my hands when I use it as it was designed in landscape. Microsoft made several notable changes to the outward look and feel of the Surface 2:
- Reduced and balanced the weight.
- Added a second position to the kick stand.
- Changed the color of the back enclosure from black to sliver.
On the surface (ha!) each of these changes may not seem significant, but they are. The reduced weight of the device does make using the device more tolerable in portrait mode, at least in my hands. But, I attribute this to the way the weight is balanced more than the weight reduction. Microsoft encourages geeks like me to think about weight distribution as opposed to just raw weight numbers, and I have to say that’s a correct approach. How things are balanced in the Surface 2 makes the device feel a bit lighter and in my view, easier to hold.
The addition of a second position for the kickstand makes a significant difference when viewing the screen. In addition to the original 24 degree angle, there is now a 40 degree angle. The 24 degree angle is excellent for working on a desktop, and the 40 degree angle makes a lot of sense when it is resting on your lap, or propped up in bed.
That said, while the device feels as sturdy as ever there are times when holding the Surface 2 with the kickstand open I feel like I might break the kickstand off. One of the ways I carry the Surface 2 when moving around the house (from porch to indoors for example) is with the keyboard attached and the kickstand in use. It feels very natural for me to carry the device with the kickstand resting over my hand. I’ve noticed that doing this occasionally means that the kickstand will pop from the 24 degree position to the 40 degree position and it almost feels like it will break off. That’s not the situation at all. These things are built to last. But it is slightly disconcerting coming from how sturdy this felt on the original Surface RT.
The original Surface RT’s VaporMg case was all black and thus, like many mobile devices, came with a fingerprint magnet included at no extra charge. Changing the back cover to sliver hides greasy fingerprints and in my view gives the device a classier look.
All in all this is a device that is easy to hold and carry, easy to set up in its preferred orientation (remember those clicking commercials) and easier to use in both orientations.
The move to the Nvidia Tegra 4 chipset, clocked at 1.7Ghz, brings a significant improvement to the Surface. This ARM based chipset contains 72 graphics cores and the device is equipped with 2GB of RAM. Coupled with the improvements to Windows 8.1, the device is no longer plagued by the horrendous performance that the original was. By no means is the Surface 2 a screamer of a Tablet, but the performance has improved so drastically that it doesn’t feel like slogging throw a mud field waiting for Apps to load.
The Surface 2 does not offer the power or smoothness of an iPad or some of the Android Tablets I’ve tried. I would liken its performance to the iPad 2. More than acceptable, but not great. (By the way, I am not one for benchmarks. I find them to be measurements that don’t mean anything in my real world, so if you’re looking for those kind of comparisons go elsewhere.) Keep in mind that the Surface 2, as its predecessor, is built on ARM architecture. That decision was a big move for Microsoft. The original Surface RT left the impression that this decision was not just wrong but horribly, if not comically wrong. Performance was that bad. But that isn’t the case any longer. The advances here in both hardware and software blend things together to make a better user experience.
Microsoft increased the resolution of the display and it is a noticeable difference. The resolution moved from 1366 × 768 to 1920 x 1080. Microsoft has also tweaked its ClearType display technology so that the colors seem richer and deeper to my eye. Combined, these changes make the previous very nice display of the Surface RT even nicer. Watching videos on the 16×9 widescreen orientation is a real joy. Text is clear and easy to read. Microsoft’s many Apps show this off very well.
It’s a shame that not enough developers are taking cues from Microsoft on how to make what Apps that do exist look as nice. But maybe that will come.
A good looking display is a requirement these days in the Land of Tablets. And the Surface 2 fills that bill. But, how a display works with capacitive touch is equally important. Sadly, Microsoft’s touch screen technology still disappoints here. The capacitive screen has 5 point multi-touch. In my usage I find I have to repeatedly touch a target far more often than should be acceptable on a touch screen device in today’s world. Don’t get me wrong, the touch screen works, and works infinitely better than the original Surface RT. It is just not as responsive as it should be in all circumstances. This is especially true given Microsoft’s early efforts in using Touch screens. Performance improvements help the case here, but not enough. When touch does work as designed there is less lag between the touch and an action.
I use my Tablets outdoors quite a bit. One of my mobile offices used to be sitting on a porch. Now it’s sitting on a much smaller balcony. In bright sunshine with the Surface 2 turned to full brightness it is no better or worse than any other Tablet I’ve used. That said, I find the automatic adjustment for screen brightness not as efficient or effective on the Surface 2 compared to other Tablets of recent make.
Ports and Expandability
One of the selling points Microsoft touts for the Surface 2 is that it comes with a USB port that allows you to hook up peripherals or plug in a USB stick. This is true. The Surface 2 has one USB 3.0 port. This is an upgrade from the USB 2.0 port on the Surface RT. Like it’s predecessor, the Surface 2 also comes with a microSD card slot. And with this newer model, it’s location is easier to get to. If you want to hook up to an external monitor the Surface 2 comes with a micro HDMI slot as well.
I picked up a 32GB model of the Surface 2 and have expanded it with a 64GB SDHC card for media and other content. Another improvement from Microsoft here is that it is now much easier to configure the Surface so that it accesses the SD card. As an example, if you store media on the SD card, you can have the various media Apps, (Video, Music, etc..) look to the SD card to pull that content much easier than the hoops you had to jump through before.
One of my complaints about the original Surface RT was with the connector for the power adapter. It required too much precision to attach to the device. The little pinpoint of light that signaled if the device was charging was too difficult to see in a lighted room. Microsoft has improved this. Although I still find that the connector takes too much precision to properly connect, it is easier than the original model. Microsoft has wrapped the connector in a band of light that makes it easier to see when you have successfully connected the power adapter or not.
Microsoft is claiming that the Surface 2′s battery life can stretch to 10 hours. Maybe so. Microsoft also claims a 25% increase over the Surface RT. I don’t run battery tests on new devices because I find that the real test comes with how you use a device over time. I can say that the Surface 2′s battery life, in under a week’s worth of usage, is improved. From my early usage I can say that it will most likely last all day on a charge. I define all day as about 8 to 9 hours. I haven’t pushed the Surface 2 beyond that yet. I used to reliably get 6 to 7 hours of so with the Surface RT.
The Touch Cover
With the introduction of the original Surface RT and Surface Pro Microsoft also introduced two keyboard accessories: The Touch Cover and the Type Cover. I tried both of them out on the original Surface RT and liked them both, preferring the Touch to the Type cover. Microsoft has upgrade both the Touch and Type covers for the second generation of Surface devices. I picked up a Touch cover for the Surface 2 and I think the improvements make an excellent accessory even better.
Microsoft has added more sensors to the Touch Cover allowing you to use Windows 8.1 gestures on the trackpad. While I enjoy using the Touch Cover and think it is more than suitable for typing, I’ve never felt like the trackpad was an equally effective implementation. The added gesture capability offers a chance to make that so, but in my usage so far, I find the trackpad still not as good as the rest of the keyboard. The new keyboard is also backlit. You can turn this on and off to your liking. I find having it on does make a difference in low light conditions.
The Touch cover includes special keys to access the Charms menu items, Search, Share, Devices, and Settings, and the Windows Key accesses the Start screen.
Microsoft will also be introducing a Power Cover for the Surface 2, Surface Pro 2 and the original Surface Pro, (not the original Surface RT). It is due to come to market in Q1 next year and promises to add an additional 5 hours of so of battery life to your device.
Both the Touch and Type Covers serve as covers for the screen when closed and both fold back over the back of the device when you are in Tablet mode. The familiar “click” is there when you join the keyboard to the Surface magnetically. I was highly impressed with the Surface keyboard options before and remain so with these new additions. Oh, there are also some new colors for the Type Cover. The Touch Cover will cost you $119 and the Type Cover will cost you $129.
Yes, Microsoft upgraded the camera. The upgrades jump from 1.2mp on the front and back sides of the Surface RT to 3.5mp on the front and 5mp on the rear. Given the Skype integration in Windows 8.1 that 3.5 front facing camera will make a difference for heavy users of Skype.
The Surface 2 32GB model costs $449. Moving up to 64GB raises the costs to $549. With that cost Microsoft is offering two premiums that are a reasonably good value. You will receive a coupon for 200GB of free Skydrive storage. Skydrive is Microsoft’s Cloud where you can store data and content. Note this 200GB is free for only 2 years. You’ll also receive a coupon for Unlimited Skype minutes and Skype Wi-Fi for one year. Using Skype you can call landlines in up to 60 countries for the duration of this offer. Note these premium offers are contained on separate cards in the Surface packaging, so make sure you look for them when you unbox.
So, that’s the hardware side of things with the Surface 2. But mobile devices are not just hardware, and Microsoft’s vision for Surface is to control both the hardware and software side of things. So, let’s take a look at how well that has been accomplished with Windows 8.1, the new version of Microsoft’s operating system. Again, I’m focusing on the big changes here that I think make a difference between the original Surface and the Surface 2.
Windows 8.1 on Surface
As I mentioned earlier in this review, the improvements for the Surface 2 have to do with both the hardware improvements and software. That would be Windows 8.1, the first major revamp of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system. Some have been wondering just how significant a change Windows 8.1 is. In my view it is a very significant upgrade and worth it on any Windows device you may use.
Now keep in mind that Microsoft wants you to think of Windows as Windows, even though at the moment there are three versions. There’s Windows 8, which works on PCs and Laptops, including the Surface Pro 2. There’s Windows Phone which works on, well, smartphones. And there’s, well, there’s…
Well there is what used to be called Windows RT, and depending on where you look is now labeled with Windows 8.1 RT as a subtitle. This is where some of the confusion lies and I’ll discuss that in the 3rd part of this review.
Microsoft is trying hard to come out from under the cloud left by the disaster of the first launch of Windows 8 RT, and one of the steps it has taken to do so is to erase the RT from the Surface tablet, now calling it the Surface 2. For more on this see Part 3 of this review.
So, setting naming and branding aside, Windows 8.1 is here and it is a decided improvement. Those improvements give the Surface 2 a fighting chance for success. This won’t be a full review of Windows 8.1 but talk about what I think are the biggest improvements and changes.
Camouflage: Hiding the Desktop
One of the biggest criticisms of, and one of the biggest confusions about the original Surface RT concept was the inclusion of the Desktop environment. It gave and gives Windows RT two faces: one that featured the Metro UI and one that existed primarily (I think solely) for Microsoft to include Office Apps (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, OneNote, and now in this latest edition, Outlook). Users were justifiably confused when they found out they couldn’t install regular Windows applications in this environment. This confusion was exacerbated because the Desktop icon was included in a prominent place on the Start screen and to discover the Office applications you had to swipe left to scroll the Start screen to find them.
With Windows 8.1 for Surface RT you still can’t use the desktop for other applications, but Microsoft has at least engaged in some subterfuge that camouflages the duality that still exists in this flavor of Windows 8.1
First, the Desktop icon does not appear on the Start screen out of the box. Secondly, the Tiles for Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Outlook are given prominent placement. Curiously, and oh, so typically for Microsoft, OneNote is not. Note that there are some other Windows system level Apps that will call up the Desktop or that can be run from the Desktop like Notepad, Character Pad, Paint, Calculator (although one exists on the Metro side too), and the good old Command Prompt. Windows Defender also runs from the Desktop side.
Semiotically and symbolically, Microsoft has worked hard to hide the Desktop in hopes of creating less confusion. Given that one of the major selling points for Surface RT Tablets is the inclusion of free Office software, the previous iteration just made no logical sense from a user experience perspective.
An interesting change that goes along with this camouflaging is that a user can now set the same Desktop background to appear on the Start Screen, essentially erasing a background visual cue as to which environment you’re in. Of course those Metro Tiles are still there when you’re in Metro land. What’s intriguing to me here is that you have limited options for setting your Start Screen background on the Metro side of things and this “tweak” doesn’t go both ways. These settings are found on the Desktop side of things by right clicking on the Task Bar, choosing Properties and then Navigation.
You can also choose to have your Device open up in the All Apps view if you just don’t like the Tiles approach. To my taste, you’d have to hate the Tiles approach quite a bit to do that. While the Surface Pro 2 allows you to boot your device to the Desktop, this is not the case with the Surface 2.
Note also that you can now configure the size of Live Tiles more easily, as well as name groups of Tiles.
PC Settings Access in Metro
One of the other areas of improvement comes when you need to adjust your PC settings or make updates. While this slowly improved with updates after the initial Surface RT release, it used to be that some settings adjustments could be made from the Metro side of things and others had to be made via Control Panel on the Desktop side of things. With 8.1 there are far fewer instances when a user needs to open the Control Panel in the Desktop environment to change a setting.
Given the two changes mentioned above, theoretically a user doesn’t even need to know that a separate desktop environment exists, except for the few seconds it pops up when launching an Office App from the Start Screen. I’ll have more to say on the dual faces of Windows 8.1 in the next part of this review.
OS Level Skydrive Integration
This is a big step forward. Skydrive is now much more tightly integrated with the operating system allowing you to more easily store, access, and retrieve content from your Skydrive. While you could access your Skydrive via an App before, you can now set your Surface up to save and retrieve all content system wide from Skydrive by default. You can do this on initial setup or later in PC Settings. You can choose to have your Camera Roll on your Skydrive instead of your device locally. Windows 8.1 Skydrive integration makes it easier to sync Settings among multiple PCs and also backup settings that are not synced normally. You’ll also notice that if you choose Skydrive integration that in File Explorer (on the Desktop Side) you’ll see your Skydive set up as if it was attached to your device. Which it is. You also have some good granular control about what Files you might want to keep locally on your Surface.
The Charms Menu and the Desktop
If you were in the Desktop environment on Surface RT and accessed the Charms Menu to access the Share menu you were greeted with a message that you could not Share from the Desktop environment. This has now changed and that is positive both in terms of using the Share capabilities from the Desktop and also in terms of merging the two environments.
However, more work needs to be done here. If you are in a Word document as an example, and would like to share a paragraph of selected text, you don’t get that option. You can only share what is viewable on the screen as a screenshot. This is obviously not optimal. Sure you can copy and paste, but being able to Share text between Applications should be an option here.
Multitasking and Snapping Windows
Another selling point Microsoft pushes with its Surface Tablets is being able to have multiple windows open on the screen simultaneously. Call it multitasking. You can certainly do two things at once on a Surface 2 screen and do it a little easier than on the original Surface RT. To make this easier you can view running Apps in a menu that you access by swiping in slowly from the right bezel until a Tile appears and then slide it back to the left to view the list of running Apps. Or you can continually swipe in from that bezel and bring up running Apps each in its own full screen. If you want to view two Applications side by side you can “snap” a window to each side of the screen and have have both open at the same time. Click on a link in IE and choose to “open it in a new window” and it will open in a “snapped” window.
If you already have two Apps running in “snapped” windows, and choose to open a third, a tile for that third App will appear and in animation will bounce back and forth until you choose which side of the screen you would like it to take over.
It is now much easier to resize “snapped” windows. Simply grab the border in between the two windows and slide them right or left to give one window prominence.
While this is indeed multitasking there are some inconsistencies here that send confusing signals. Not all Apps behave the same way in “snapped” windows. Some need more screen real estate than others. If you have an Office App open on the Desktop, you can, for example, open Word on the Desktop, swipe in from the right bezel to display a list of running Apps and open a second App on the screen to run side by side with Word. This allows, in some instances to do an easy copy and paste of content between the two environments. But this behavior is not the same for two Desktop Apps running side by side.
While you can open multiple Office Apps on the desktop and resize them to have them display side by side, they will not take advantage of the multitasking features of the Metro side of the OS.
The Search function has also been improved and should be less confusing. Now when you initiate a search you can get results from everywhere and not just from within the context of the App you have open on the screen. From a pull down you can select where you wish to search from each time you perform a search. Note that while you can access Search from the Charms menu, you can just begin typing on the Start Screen to bring up the Search Bar. Search is now completely powered by Bing.
Some Things Removed in Windows 8.1
With improvements come changes and some of those changes mean taking some things away. Microsoft removed a few things along the way in delivering Windows 8.1. They include:
- The Messaging App is gone, replaced by Skype. But then we all knew this was coming.
- You can no longer access your photos from Facebook or Flickr in the Photos App. I’m actually sorry to see this one go as it gave you a nice way to round up your photos from multiple sources around the web. Microsoft says that if you want to do this, there are other Apps now available in the Store to let you do so.
- I’m not sure if this is a removal or just an out and out improvement. It used to be that installing an App from the Store immediately placed the App on the Start Screen. No longer. If you want the App on the Start Screen, you need to manually add it yourself.
Observations and Recommendations
As mentioned earlier I’ve been using the Surface 2 for just under a week. I do find the hardware and the software, and more importantly the integration of the two, considerably improved and now find myself able to recommend this device to certain categories of users. This was not true with the original Surface RT.
If you’re one of the legions of users who only do email, browse the web, create the occasional document, and want to watch movies, you might want to consider a Surface 2. If you are a Windows die-hard and want a causal Tablet the Surface 2 might be worth a look. If you have been living in a Microsoft Office environment for work, and want a Tablet that can allow you to work with those files and have some Tablet recreation, this could be a viable choice.
Do note that I videoed my wife, Thomasin Savaiano using this Surface 2 for the first time prior to researching and writing this review. I admit that I was quite surprised at her positive responses to the Surface 2.
I would only consider a Surface 2 if you were going to include a keyboard in your purchase ($119 for the Touch Cover or $129 for the Type Cover). If you’re a Windows power user, or a Tablet power user, I’d look to the Surface Pro 2 if this form factor appeals to you. If you’re a power Tablet user, I think there are other options that are more mature for you to consider whether that be the iPad or Android. The bottom line here is that Microsoft did some catching up with the Surface 2, but it still lags a bit behind its competition. When you choose a topical costume for the Halloween gathering but arrive late to the party, it shouldn’t be that surprising that no one seems that excited about your costume.
As I said at the beginning Microsoft has made some demonstrable changes with the Surface 2, but not all is a bed of roses. I’ve managed to stumble into several crashes of the device and had to Refresh Settings once already. When taking a screen shot it is far too easy to turn on Narrator mode. Turning Narrator mode off requires far too many taps to get to the setting under Ease of Access settings. There should be a global setting for turning this feature off if you do not need it. There’s still a lack of coherence between the Metro and Desktop sides of things.
There have been at least two firmware updates since I bought the Surface 2. The first came right out of the gate when I first set up the device, and one just recently. This demonstrates that Microsoft is paying attention and working at a good pace to keep things moving forward.
I also still have very serious reservations about the dual nature of the Surface experience which I’ll explore in another part of this review. There are a course a vast menu of smaller things not covered here that both please me and bug the heck out of me with the Surface 2. I’ve tried to focus on the big changes that I believe improve on what Microsoft is offering here, and actually make the Surface 2 a viable consumer choice. In the next part of this review I’ll focus on Apps, the Store, and what that experience means for the Surface 2. Look for that tomorrow and we’ll update links here in this post as Part 2 and Part 3 are published.
Other Posts about the Microsoft Surface 2 and Surface RT
- Microsoft Surface 2 Review: Less Confusing and More Viable
- Microsoft Surface 2 Review Part 2: Apps and the Problems They Cause
- Chicago Microsoft Surface 2 Launch: Bread, Hockey Sticks, and Tablets
- Checking out the Microsoft Surface 2 with a First Timer
- Microsoft Surface RT Review: This Thing Confuses Me
- Upon Further Review: Microsoft Surface RT Still Confuses Me